Friday, September 21, 2018
  • Lightning Strikes

Jones: Tampa Bay needs a playoff push. Save us, Lightning

Stammer. Vasy. Kuuuuch.

It's up to you guys now.

Heddy. Johnnie. Coop.

We need you now more than ever.

A community turns its lonely eyes to you, Tampa Bay Lightning. Time to save us. You're all we have.

The Rays? Pitchers and catchers and allegedly Matt Duffy report soon. But the last we saw of these guys, they were shipping Evan Longoria out of town and someone over there, with a straight face, was trying to sell us on why this was a good thing.

We keep waiting for the news release any day now that tells us Chris Archer, Alex Colome and Jake Odorizzi have been traded. The Rays have traded so many of their best players over the years that they no longer have a best player. All that's left is a centerfielder who can catch flyballs and a bunch of No. 6 hitters.

The Bucs? Sigh.

Here's how you know things are rotten with your football team. It's January and the most exciting thing on your to-do list is hoping your team takes an offensive lineman in the draft in three months. Woo-hoo.

Maybe the Bucs shouldn't hope they do too well in the draft. We don't want the general manger cringing at the thought that the Bucs might actually go .500 next season. Meantime, they still need a pass rusher, a running back and someone to make sure the quarterback doesn't jump in an Uber.

College basketball in these parts is a drag. USF might be the crummiest men's basketball program in the country. They've lost seven in a row and I'm trying to find a conference game they can win even though they aren't in a great conference.

Even the USF women have some work to do to get back to their usual high level.

So now we turn to the Lightning — our one hope, the one team that keeps Tampa Bay from joining the likes of Cincinnati and Milwaukee as the most actively depressing sports towns at the moment.

We're not Boston, where every team is good. We're not New York, who can seemingly go out and get any player it wants. We're not even Philly.

Although, thank goodness for that. There shouldn't be two towns with fans that obnoxious.

We're just a town with a pretty good hockey team and not much else.

And the problem is, we've been sidetracked while the Lightning has played its best regular-season hockey since, well, ever.

We've been busy trying to get Jon Gruden hired by the Bucs and watching UCF make a fool of itself by holding its breath and stomping its feet and trying to convince anyone who will listen that it is college football's national champion.

During that time, the Lightning was lighting up the NHL. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were scoring tons of goal. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was stopping everything thrown at him. And the team was piling up one victory after another about the same time the Bucs were piling one loss on top of another.

Then, as soon as we started to really get into the Lightning, when we really started paying it attention, it hit the skids. Not a bad skid, but just enough that fans started to ask what the heck was going on.

Vasilevskiy started fighting the puck. Stamkos and Kucherov went into a scoring slump — well, a slump by their standards. Then came the injuries, first to Victor Hedman and now to Ondrej Palat, who is one of those guys you take for granted until he's out of the lineup. Then you realize just how much he means to your team.

The Lightning stopped the bleeding a bit Monday night with a victory in Chicago. It was, by no means, a great performance by anyone other than Vasilevskiy, but a win is a win, and the Lightning will take any kind of win right now.

It was bound to run into a bit of a slump. It played so well for so long that there was no way to keep up that kind of pace.

The Lightning was due to lose a few games in a short span.

It's no reason to hit the panic button, but it was just enough that fans were at least checking to see where that panic button was located.

Tampa Bay is going to make the playoffs, no sweat. Maybe it won't finish with the best record in hockey. Maybe it won't even win its division.

But it will make the postseason comfortably. And that's when the real fun begins. Just imagine how fun late May might be for fans in these parts if the Lightning is making a serious run at the Stanley Cup.

Tampa Bay fans should hope so. After all, the Rays might be out of the race by then.